Making Sense of Saints Patricia Ann Kasten
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2004)
This is like a handbook on a variety of “saint” topics, with clear and lively explanations, and lots of examples.
The making of a saint “Saint” comes from the French seinte, which comes from the Latin sanctus (“holy”) and sancire (“consecrated”). The original Greek word was hagios (a word used for holy and sacred things).
In the early days, it was usually “popular outcry” (vox populi) that led to people being declared saints. The public practically demanded the recognition of a “saintly” person, based on his or her well-known holiness and life of good works.
The earliest formal canonisation on record is that of St. Ulrich of Ausburg, canonised by Pope John XV in 993. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX brought the process under the Pope’s purview and in 1588, Pope Sixtus V instituted the Sacred Congregation for Rites, the precursor of today’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Therefore, the process now formally included “ecclesiastical authority”, with a “competent bishop” in charge of each case, but the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) is still important in modern times, as in the case of the sainthood causes of, for example, Frs. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney and Damien of Molokai in the 19th century, as it was in the sainthood causes of, for example, Lydia of Thyatira in the 1st century and Nicholas of Myra in the 4th century.
The earliest saints The first groups of people who were recognised as saints were those in direct contact with Jesus, such as the Apostles, and, naturally, His earthly family members, Mother Mary and St. Joseph, as well as those who spread the Good News in the Apostolic Age, such as St. Paul.
The first formal saints were martyrs, with St. Stephen the first among them. “Martyr” is from the Greek martus (“witness”), originally a term referring to the Apostles, and our history tells us there were countless martyrs in the early centuries, mostly victims of Roman persecution.
The next group that was recognised were the “confessors of the faith” (from the Latin confiteor, meaning “profession”, which is also the name of the “I confess” prayer at Mass), those who had suffered for the sake of the faith, hence also being “witnesses” in publicly confessing their faith, but were not killed for it.
Some martyrs and confessors were disciples of the Apostles.
Another group of early saints were the monastics, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, some of whom were also students of the Apostles, and students of these students. Monastics lived apart from the world, in imitation of Jesus’ life of “poverty, obedience and chastity”, with the aim of coming closer to God. Some lived in community while others lived and prayed in solitude.
By medieval times, monasteries had become the centres of towns and from there emerged religious orders (for example, the Franciscans, Norbertines, Dominicans and Trappists), and more saints of course, such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua. Thus, with all the spirituality and teaching that came out of monasteries, we all can track our way back to the monastics!
There is much evidence in the catacombs that from the early days, Christians venerated the relics of saints. For example, the first formal churches were built over or near the graves of martyrs. Early Christians also chose to be buried near or within the burial ground of martyrs.
The Second Council of Nicaea (787) ruled that all new churches should have relics of saints interred in their altars. (This was no longer compulsory after Vatican II.)
Relics are classified as follows: First class – the bodies or body parts of saints, any instruments of Christ’s Passion Second class – objects clearly associated with the saint, such as what they wore often or items they used Third class – objects that had some contact with or which have touched first or second class relics or the graves of saints
Buying or selling relics is part of the sin of simony and the Church never approved this practice (nor the sale of indulgences).
The canonisation process Canonisation is from the word “canon” (as in “canon laws”), from the Greek kanon (“straight”) and Hebrew kaneh (“need”).
The Canon of Saints is the list of all the holy people whose lives led them straight to God and what canonisation means is that the Church believes that this particular person is with God and can intercede for those still alive, and that his or her life and work are an exemplary model for us in our efforts in leading holy lives.
Servus Dei – Servant of God When a “saint” is identified, the process to declare him or her a saint starts at the diocese where he or she died, under the charge of the bishop of the diocese (there are some exceptions, such as for John Paul II, for whom the process began in the diocese where he worked).
There is a waiting period of five years, to give time for excitement to die down and for the real picture to emerge (the Pope can decide to shorten the waiting time, as in the cases of John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta). After the five years, the bishop seeks approval to start the sainthood cause. When the petition is approved, the proposed saint is called “Servant of God”.
Venerable The diocese then collects proof of the “virtuous” life of the Servant of God, and also studies his or her writings (if there are formal works). When there is enough evidence, the bishop hands over the case to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which puts everything together and sends the Decree of Heroic Virtues to the Pope for his approval. Once this is approved, the proposed saint is called “Venerable”.
Beatified Evidence of a miracle attributed to the proposed saint is then sought, with the local bishop playing an important part here. The criteria are that the miracle must be “immediate”, “complete”, “permanent” and “unexplainable by scientific means”.
When the miracle is confirmed, the proposed saint is beatified (“raised to the altar”).
Saint A second miracle (after beatification) is then sought, and when confirmed, he or she is declared a saint.
Doctors of the Church “Doctor” is from the Latin docere (to teach, show, inform) and is a term for theologians of the highest order. All Doctors of the Church are saints who were the master teachers of our Faith.
Patron saints “Patron” is from the Latin patronus, which is from the word for “father”. During the time of the Roman empire, the patron was one’s “legal advocate”, and patronus also referred to senators and former owners of freed slaves.
It is common practice to turn to our patron saints for their intercession, and they could include the saints we were named after, saints whose feast days are on the day we were born, saints whom we came to learn about (and from) and became devoted to, or the patron saint of particular occupations or places.
Depiction of saints in art Certain symbols are used for different types of saints.
Palm branch, a symbol of victory (Rev 7:14) – for martyrs
White clothing, symbolising purity, a lamb or crown of flowers – for virgins, e.g. St. Agnes
Lilies, symbolising purity of heart, e.g. for Mother Mary, St. Joseph, St. Anthony of Padua
There are also other recognisable symbols, such as the religious habit of the saint, or objects specifically related to the saint, e.g. the green shamrock for St. Patrick, the arrows in St. Sebastian (the instrument of death), and the key in St. Peter’s hand.
Halos Halo is from the Greek halos (“disk of the sun”), and is a symbol appropriated from ancient Egypt and Greece.
Halos started to be used for Jesus around the 3rd century, usually when representing Him in a “royal” context. By the 5th century, halos were also used for Mother Mary, angels and saints.
Why bother about the Saints? It is important to note the difference between the honour we give to God and to the saints. The book explains the Greek terms dulia (connoting obedience) and latria (connoting homage). Latria is always and only used for the honour we give to God while dulia refers to the honour we give to other human beings, in this case the saints (hyperdulia for Mother Mary). What the phrases “pray to Mary” and “pray to saints” really mean is to ask Mary or the saints for their help in praying for us (intercession).
The CCC explains that saints “show the power of the Spirit alive within the Church and sustain the hope of believers through their examples and intercession.”
The familiar phrase communion of saints (communion sanctorum – “the participation in holy, spiritual things”, “the participation of the holy ones”) encapsulates the universality of the Catholic context we are all a part of, in which the Church Militant, Church Suffering and Church Triumphant are one.
Some prayers composed by saints have become so famous and inspiring that they have been turned into song.
Great Christian Thinkers From the Early Church through the Middle Ages by Pope Benedict XVI
(Fortress Press, 2011)
It began when my non-Catholic friend said that she had learnt quite a bit from the writings of the Church Fathers. “Church Fathers?” I scanned my mind for something to say to that but could not find a thing that was useful. I could only think “St. Augustine”. How I have kicked myself for not having been able to engage with her on this topic. When I saw this book, I knew that I needed it.
This is a collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s sermons on our Church’s very important thinkers, delivered at his public audiences at St. Peter’s Square between 2007 and 2010. He covers the historical background, activities and theological contributions of these great men and women, some of whom I had never heard of before, such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Rabanus Maurus and Marguerite d’Oingt.
The thinkers are classified as: • Heirs of the Apostles (such as Origen and Tertullian)
• Great Teachers of the Ancient Church (such as Sts. Basil, Jerome and Augustine and other Church Fathers)
• Monks and Missionaries (such as Bede the Venerable, Sts. Boniface, Cyril and Methodius)
• Mystics, Mendicants and Scholastics (such as Sts. Anselm, Hildegard, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena).
It makes for interesting reading when their feast days come round. However, many but not all of them are saints so we can’t just use feast days to get to know more about the movers and shakers of our history. Well, any time of the year is a good a time to learn something from these great Christian thinkers.
Today is the memorial of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who not long after his death was already proclaimed “the pillar of the Church”. Why was this the case?
He was, Pope Benedict explains, the “most important and tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy”. As a deacon and secretary to the Alexandrian bishop at the time, Athanasius was part of the Council of Nicaea, at which the belief in the “full divinity” of Jesus Christ was enshrined in the creed.
In 328, Athanasius became bishop but the Arian heresy came back to the fore and he had to leave Alexandria a number of times. However, these years of “exile” brought the opportunity to spread the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed as well as the “ideals of monasticism”. One of the results was the growth of monasticism in Egypt, among hermits such as St. Anthony Abbot. Eventually, Athanasius returned as bishop of Alexandria, and worked towards “religious pacification” and the “reorganisation of Christian communities”.
His most famous doctrinal work was De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation of the Word), from which we have the well-known quotation that the Word of God “was man so that we might be made God; and he manifested himself through a body so that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality”. His other important works include teachings on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Easter preparations, meditational texts on the Psalms and the biography of St. Anthony Abbot.
The Jewish Roots of Catholicism presented by Bob Fishman
This DVD series is a compilation of presentations by Bob Fishman. There are three episodes:
Chanukah (Hanukkah, Festival of Lights or Feast of Dedication – commemorating the re-dedication of the Temple after what the Jews went through as recounted in 1 Maccabees 1-5)
The High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah – Day of Awe & Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement).
Apart from occasionally being reminded of how Jesus was a practising Jew, the idea of “Jesus and Judaism” hardly crosses my mind. Hence, I found the content enlightening.
Overall, what I learnt from watching this series was that there are so many beliefs and ideas that we hold dear as “Christian/Catholic” but they originated in the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Thus, we could say that the richness of Catholicism partly grew out of the richness of Judaism.
Some links between Judaism and Catholicism
The sensory nature of the practice of Judaism partly explains our tactile and sensory elements, such as in the use of sacred vessels and vestments, prayer/worship postures, symbols such as light and images, etc. When Jews pray, they put on the tallis (prayer shawl). Their priests have specific meticulous preparations for their temple duties. All these are to remind them that they are dedicating their time to God. Similarly, when we make the sign of the cross, or when priests vest themselves for Mass and so on, we are also reminded that we are coming away from our mundane world to a holy time with God.
I did not know that the concept of “liturgy” is also important in Judaism. For example, they have a “liturgical year” and they have “liturgical” music. Different music is used for different parts of the Jewish service and for different occasions. Where we see in the psalms words like “for the choirmaster” (I always wondered about that!) and certain instruments or days specified, these are like instructions for how and when the psalm is to be used. In a similar way, we have different types of music for the Mass Ordinaries and different parts of the Mass, as well as for different occasions.
Some interesting explanations
Tashlikh is the symbolic “casting off” of sins and is part of the Rosh Hashanah service. The ancient practice was to break off pieces of bread, symbolising the person’s sins, and “cast” them into the sea. The “sins” were “taken away” by the fish eating the bread and this symbolises God forgiving our sins. Fishman relates this to instances of Jesus using the language of Judaism, such as in “cast your cares on me” and “I am the living bread”. Also, he sees the waters in which our sins are taken away as the ocean of God’s “divine mercy”.
In explaining the Jewish practice of visiting their ancestors’ graves and asking them for help (that’s like the precursor of the concept of the intercession of the saints), he uses an interesting baseball analogy to explain the communion of saints. Many Americans grow up playing baseball and they will all get to a certain level in the game. The greats are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Saints, he says, are the ones who have made it to our hall of fame. Their images are reminders of the qualities that got them there, just as the images and statistics of the baseball Hall of Famers remind people of their greatness.
Finally, there is the symbolism of light, which is also important to the Jews. For example, during the preparation for Yom Kippur, they light a Yahrzeit candle to remember someone who has died. The candle represents how that person shone his or her “light” while living on earth. The important reflection question for us is – “How will you share your light with others?”
After watching the three episodes as quickly as I could so that I could return the DVDs in a reasonable time, I discovered that episode 3 is available online! Oh well, never mind. I’m glad I disciplined myself to watch the three episodes.
You can find “The High Holy Days” here.
(this link is for Part 1 of six parts)
What Every Catholic Wants to Know: Catholic History
by Diane Moczar
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2006)
I’m sure not that everybody wants to read more about history than they have to (e.g. for school) and so I like how this title says that all Catholics want to know more about Catholic history.
Well, why should they know about the history? Here is a quotation from the book: “… the ancients saw history as part of ethics; one learned about morality by observing how people of the past behaved. For Catholics, history is more that that: it is God’s working in the world. Our “So what?” [one of the “key questions to ask about anything in history”] will therefore always be open to seeing God’s hand in everything that happens in history. In some cases, His guidance will be easy to discern, while in others we may not see it at all. It is always, nevertheless, at work in the human affairs we study.”
Moczar stresses that this is neither a “textbook” nor a “scholarly book” but a “collection of evocative glimpses of the history of the Church”. At just 167 pages, it gives us a quick overview of what happened “from the catacombs to the Reformation”.
She organises the book in pairs of chapters – each pair starts with a commentary on what happened during that particular era and is followed by a chapter discussing “Catholic thought and culture” during that time. Each chapter ends with “Food for thought”, a short reflection section that links the issues of the day with issues of our day, and “Reading suggestions”, comprising her recommendations for further reading on specific topics.
These are the time periods covered and some topics and people (mostly the stout defenders of the faith and the loudest challengers of the teachings of the Church) discussed.
The early Church
early Christian communities, persecution by the Roman empire and early martyrs (e.g. Sts. Felicity and Perpetua)
“synthesis” of classical learning and Christianity, early Catholic literature, Church Fathers, Doctors of the Church
The Dark Ages
fall of Rome, attacks by “barbarians” and nomadic tribes, challenges such as Arianism and paganism, the kingdom of the Franks (“heart of the Catholic civilisation of the west”),
decline in learning, the few “pockets of survival” (e.g. Ireland), St. Boethius, Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Bede
End of the Dark Ages
Battle of Tours, the rise of Charlemagne, the Carolingian Renaissance, the challenge of the Vikings and Magyars
revival of learning, start of book production, new styles of writing
Early Middle Ages
renewal of economic and social life, improvements in agriculture, the feudal system, rise of towns and kings
St. Peter Damian, St. Anselm, St. Wulstan
High Middle Ages
“the high point of Christendom” – when “Christianity permeated all of society, and shaped everything from economics to politics”
flourishing of education, literature and the arts, the fight against “heresy, schism and false teaching”, St. Thomas Becket, Abelard, St. Bernard of Clairvaux
The 13th century – “the greatest of centuries?”
social and economic growth, religious fervour in England and France, development of the “masterpieces of medieval thought, arts and institutions”
Gothic architecture, music, literature, Pope Innocent III
Late Middle Ages
famine, the plague, the Hundred Years’ War, Turkish attacks, changing relations between Church and state
the Renaissance, trouble for the papacy
It may surprise some people that a book on history can be enjoyable or funny but I certainly enjoyed this book. It was educational and written in an engaging and sometimes amusing style. I look forward to reading her book on the later periods.
Louder than Words: The Art of Living as A Catholic by Matthew Leonard
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2013)
Matthew Leonard explains that living a Christ-centred life is an essential response to God’s love. He writes about the importance of the Sacraments, the Eucharist, Scripture and prayer in our personal conversion and in strengthening us to carry out God’s work in the age of the New Evangelisation. He also includes references to some saints as role models and a few personal stories, with a touch of humour here and there.
An excerpt from the last chapter: “Paraphrasing Saint Catherine of Sienna, Blessed John Paul II[this book was published in 2013]declared that: ‘… if you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!’
Time is short. You don’t want to get to the end of your life, whenever that may be, and regret that you didn’t live the way you were supposed to.”
Leonard approaches the New Evangelisation with a sense of urgency: “We can’t wait for the world to come to Christ; we have to take Christ to the world.”
Our mission in this life is to “shine His love upon others”. In order to do this, we need to evangelise ourselves first, hence the importance of the Word and the Eucharist, prayer and the Sacraments. Our lives must be anchored in Christ: “in Christ we find the key that unlocks everything:… love.” Jesus also gave us the “blueprint for a holy life” – the beatitudes, which are all “ordered to the kingdom of heaven”.
He urges us to live our Catholic lives as Catholics should. The holiness and love that we would then show are what will speak louder than words.